There now follows a short intermission

I am taking a hiatus from writing. Not for long, just enough to recharge my batteries. This year has felt full on with books, events and family commitments. My capacity to cope is jittering so I am taking a short time out in an attempt to ground myself.

My children were all home for an extended Easter holiday which was a delight. I also determined to take more walks, more swims, and to return the the gym. These activities felt right for me but were demanding of time. My reviewing rate took the hit.

A number of friends and associates, some longstanding, cut ties with me for reasons they did not explain. Social media is a boon for keeping in touch when face to face socialising is regarded as a challenge; it can be damaging when armed as rejection.

No matter how often I remind myself that other’s reactions and opinions shouldn’t matter, they have an impact.

These are the books on my TBR pile being published in May. I am eager to read them all and will endeavour to post my reviews around publication. Books remain my solace and I am working on not feeling pressurised by self-imposed commitments and deadlines.

All being well I will continue with my walks, swims and the gym. I also have trips away planned with family – there is much to look forward to. Perhaps I will write about some of these activities. Writing is my way of processing the turbulence of life although I do not always publish such musings.

I want in this post to thank the generous community of writers, especially book bloggers, who share my posts on social media. I rarely thank you personally but please know that your support is always very much appreciated. I have needed the warm fuzzies such kindness generates recently.

For now, I am not going far. I am not cutting ties. Back soon xx

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Book Review: Killing Hapless Ally

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Killing Hapless Ally, by Anna Vaught, is a fictional memoir exploring mental illness and how the protagonist, Alison, learns to cope with her life through the creation of an alter ego and a host of imaginary friends. It is brutally frank, painful in places, but also darkly funny. Despite the suicide attempts and self harm, Alison is trying to find a way to survive in a world that she believes perceives her as a nuisance and a misfit.

As a child Alison always felt rejected. Her mother, Maria, told her she had not been wanted, that she should have been left at the hospital in a bucket. If she had to have a daughter Maria wished her to be a graceful, slender and beautiful little girl. Alison was plump, clumsy and struggled to stay clean. Her middle class parents were well regarded by their local community. All treated Alison with contempt.

Hapless Ally was the personality Alison thought would be more acceptable to her family and peers, an alter ego created as a shield against the verbal and physical onslaughts she endured. As well as hiding behind Ally in public, Alison developed obsessive routines and a shocking vocabulary. Only in private could she be her true self, confiding in a series of invented friends drawn from music and books.

The story explores snapshots of Alison’s life from as far back as she can remember – visits to relatives; attempts at ballet, music lessons and brownies; school and then university; caravan holidays with her parents. All are seen through the eyes of a deeply unhappy girl desperate to find acceptance.

As an adult Alison comes to realise that she is living her life with the soundtrack of her mother’s scathing criticism always in her head. She seeks help, but fears that she will not be able to cope without the strategies she has relied on for decades. She marries and has children, but then suffers a severe mental breakdown. Hapless Ally is conspiring with her dead mother and an exorcism is required.

The writing is intense, sometimes rambling, always coherent. The disjointedness can make for challenging reading but is effective at conveying the fragmentation of memory, especially from childhood, the overlap of sensation with events. It is fascinating and somewhat disturbing to look at adult behaviour through young Alison’s eyes, to see what a child absorbs and the impact of circumstance.

The story has been drawn from the author’s own experience of mental health issues. The authenticity this brings makes it a somewhat disquieting read. Although not an easy subject to explore mental illness deserves wider discussion. This book does not attempt to offer easy answers, but it generates important questions.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Patrician Press.

Book Review: Mad Girl

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Mad Girl, by Bryony Gordon, is a darkly humourous account of living with mental illness. Since she was a child the author has suffered periods of debilitating OCD and clinical depression. As a young adult she developed eating disorders. She turned to alcohol and cocaine in an attempt to cope with her demons. Now she has decided to talk openly about these issues. Her aim is to out the prevalence of mental illness, to challenge the stigma society attaches to maladies that are ‘all in the head’, and to build understanding of the blight misconceptions can cause.

Bryony is the first to admit that she had a privileged upbringing. Privately educated and from a stable, supportive, middle class family she nevertheless developed anxieties at a young age. She recalls at age twelve fearing she may have AIDS despite never having indulged in risky activities. In an attempt to save her family from infection she washed her hands so frequently they cracked and avoided touching her parents and siblings. And then as suddenly as her acute fears had arrived they passed, until returning with a vengeance, in new and damaging forms, when she was in her late teens.

As Bryony recounts the hedonism of her twenties, how she acquired her dream job in journalism and travelled the world on glamourous assignments, she shares the self esteem problems that resulted in abusive relationships and her self-abusing lifestyle. None of this is to court sympathy but rather to demonstrate how adept people are at hiding what they do not wish others to see. She dreamed up happy scenarios, shared only the edited highlights of her life, and was reluctant to admit all was not as it seemed, even to herself.

Bryony lived what looked to be a normal and successful life, joking about many of her wilder exploits and using them as fodder for her writing career. Now what she wishes to do, in talking openly about what was actually going on during this time, is to demonstrate that mental illness is not shameful. She wishes to engender a wider acceptance that sufferers are not somehow to blame.

It is believed that one in four people experience mental health problems yet still the default is not to admit to such suffering. The cause is unknown, there is as yet no cure, and treatments are limited. This is before the woeful underfunding of mental health provision within the NHS is taken into account. Bryony eventually found help through CBT but only because she had the resources to fund it.

The raw honesty and self deprecating humour with which this account is written makes it a touching, sometimes shocking, yet continually entertaining read. The misery described is never gratuitous. As a social anxiety sufferer I found it uplifting. My hope is that those who do not have to endure such afflictions may gain a better understanding from this highly readable account. Those who do suffer may take comfort in the fact that they are not alone. They too are one of ‘The We’, and we are to be found everywhere.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.

Book Review: Beside Myself

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Beside Myself, by Ann Morgan, is a powerful exploration of family, identity and mental health. It examines a fractured family whose matriarch believes individuals should take responsibility for their problems; that they should be contained, hidden from the outside world; that to make a fuss is worse than whatever the cause may have been.

Ellie and Helen are twins, as alike as two peas in a pod. Helen is the leader, the good girl who has to look out for her stupider sister. Sometimes this means giving her a lesson, inflicting cruelties which Helen enjoys. One day she decides that they will play a game. Helen will pretend to be Ellie and Ellie is to pretend to be Helen. They swap the clothes and hairstyles that their mother gives them that people may tell them apart. Except the day they choose to play the game is the day that Mother moves her new man into their home. Everyone is fooled by the girls’ deceit, and then Ellie refuses to swap back.

This is Helen’s story, the twin who is now known as Ellie. Alternate chapters deal with her childhood and adulthood, the timelines converging as her tale is told. When we first meet her as an adult it is clear that her life is a mess. She is hungover, living in poverty, estranged from her family. When she hears that her sister is in a coma following a car accident she doesn’t wish to become involved. Her sister’s husband will not accept this.

From the first page I was hooked. The premise is intriguing but it is the development that really impressed. There is no filler. Every chapter offers up yet another reveal, another punch in the gut. Ellie is constantly reaching out to those around her and finding emptiness. It is an aloneness that hurts in its realism.

As adults it is too easy to look at a troubled child and believe that, with the right support, they could be mended. This story demonstrates that much of that support is misplaced. A child struggles to speak the language of adults who will always consider that they know best. Like many youngsters, Ellie tells stories as she grasps for attention. Her attempts to explain the truth then flounder, the words she struggles to find treated with contempt.

Ellie is labelled as backward and troublesome. Her hopes of fresh starts are blown away by the reports that go ahead of her, passed between the adults charged with her care. As realisation dawns that she has no power to change her situation she finds a way to cope by ceasing to care. With nothing now to lose, rules and conventions may be ignored.

I felt anger and sadness as Ellie’s story unfolded. I was awed at the author’s accomplishment in the telling. Difficult issues of nature, nurture, how adults treat children and society judges; are woven into a compelling story of relationships, and the blame apportioned when outcomes clash with ideals.

The denouement provides explanations for many of the problems Ellie faced. There are no easy answers but it is a satisfying end to the tale.

This is a remarkable work of literature that I have no hesitation in recommending. It will be amongst my best reads of the year.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Bloomsbury Circus.

Book Review: Purity

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Purity, by Jonathan Franzen, is a story about power – within relationships and across nations – and the psychological damage it can cause to the powerful and the overpowered. Several of the key characters appear to be mentally unbalanced, forever seeking validation through emotional blackmail. What they think of as love is possession and control.

The story, which spans more than half a century, is told from the perspectives of each of these characters in turn. As with memory, the details vary depending on who is recalling events and where they currently are in their lives. What is common to each thread is the visceral honesty which can be disturbing and distasteful to read. The animal instincts and selfishness are presented unadorned.

The reader is first introduced to Purity Tyler who considers her name an embarrassment so calls herself Pip. She is working in telesales and living in a squat having amassed a huge debt getting through college. She is a good daughter, regularly phoning her needy mother, but has many neuroses including a lack of impulse control. She wishes to find out who her father is, a subject that her single mother has always refused to discuss.

A German visitor to the squat, Annagret, invites Purity to join a collective in Bolivia run by the charismatic Andreas Wolf. His Sunlight Project is presented as something akin to Wikileaks, shining light into the corners of the internet which the powerful prefer to keep hidden. Andreas grew up in East Germany, the child of prominent government employees. It soon becomes clear that he himself has plenty he wishes to hide.

When the Berlin Wall comes down Andreas meets Tom Aberant, an American journalist who is, at that time, facing the end of his ten year marriage to the mentally deranged Anabel. Andreas wishes to pursue a beautiful young girl whom he has come to know through his work as a counsellor at a church where he has been living. He asks Tom to help him, regarding him as a friend despite having only just met. The secrets he confides and the actions they take will haunt Andreas for the rest of his life.

The background to and inter-relationships between these characters are explored in excoriating detail. There is a great deal of masturbation and sex, there is cunilingus, porn and abuse. All of this is recounted alongside, and perhaps as a reaction to, the mental gymnastics that the parents and partners play as they attempt to bend those they claim to love to their will.

I found elements of the story difficult to read but consider it well written. The author gets under his reader’s skin with memorable characters and challenging situations. Do we blame upbringing or mental illness for a character’s flaws? Is it mental illness or an honest representation of base thoughts to which many are prone?

The search for purity is a recurring theme as well as a play on the protagonists name. Beauty and purity are mistakenly conflated, guilt excised by distance from the harmed. That each of the characters made mistakes in their treatment of others is undeniable. The exploration of the extenuating circumstances of those failures, the deliberation over how typical these experiences may be, are what give this tale its strength.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Fourth Estate.   

 

Ghost

I feel as though I am floating, uncertain and alone. The tethers that once anchored me have come loose. The lines between the life others see, the books that I read and the stories that I write are becoming blurred. These are all my experiences, a part of what I am. How much of my life is real, how much imagined? An individual’s perception is his reality.

I wrote a piece last week about life on line. I wrote it as fiction and yet, when it was finished, I realised that I had created something personal. When I look at the life I am living it has lost its solidity.

I read books to escape from the rejection. I write to cope with the hurt. I no longer fit into the worlds of those around me. Now that my family has grown they have their own interests. They are kind to me, humour me but do not seem to understand what I am.

I am a ghost, not quite here. I drift through my days. I read and I write. I exist on the margins.

 

Reflections on 2013

However much I may like or loath the various traditions and expectations that the festive season throws up, it is hard not to reflect on the year just gone as it draws to a close. Mine has been nothing if not turbulent, even if only in my own head. As this is the only place where I can experience my life, the impact has been significant to me. In the words of the Bring Me The Horizon song, ‘I can’t drown my demons, they know how to swim’. I have therefore been trying to learn to manage my vexations and learn to swim with them.

We all change over time as events and experiences offer us new ways to see things. I believe that I am in a much better place now than I was a year ago, even if the journey has been challenging. This coming year I wish to build on the good  things that I have discovered. I want to write more and better, I want to find a way to share the pleasure that this gives me with my family, even if it is only that they may benefit from my more positive outlook. They have been the ones to suffer most from my moods, which have been all over the place in the last twelve months.

One of the highlights of my year was undoubtedly my trip to Berlin with my elder two children in late summer. We stayed with a very dear friend of mine and he made the trip just unbelievably fabulous for us. The city itself exceeded all my expectations, but those few days were precious for the company and the conversation as much as the location. After what had been a difficult summer for me it was just the pick me up that I needed. I cherish the memories that we made.

Other than that there were highlights, such as a night away in a lovely hotel by the seaside with my husband for his birthday in the spring; and lowlights, mainly triggered by the struggle I had coping with my adored children no longer needing nor wanting the interaction that has dominated my life for the last seventeen years. I still worry that I should be encouraging them to behave differently at times, but recognise that my sphere of influence has diminished. If we are to continue to get on then I need to grant them the freedom that they demand.

My husband has continued to support my eccentricities, it amazes me how good he is to me. Thanks to his generosity I was able to design and have built a little library in the heart of our home where I can curl up to read, write and tinker on our piano (my skill on this beautiful instrument has not, alas, improved). Surrounded by my books this is the perfect space for me to relax and create. I do a lot less housework and a lot more dreaming than I once did. Having me happy benefits my family more than having a dust free home, at least that is what I tell myself.

I am grateful that a core group of friends have stuck by me this year, even though I have not made the effort that I should to get together more often. I have actively avoided socialising in what would be regarded as normal venues, preferring to meet up for walks in the beautiful countryside around our home. Despite my inability to offer these friends comprehensible reasons why my moods have been so volatile they have offered me valued company and support.

And then there have been my growing number of on line friends who have offered encouragement, empathy and virtual hugs. This community has provided validation when I have felt that I have been losing my reason. I am grateful to my outernet friends for accepting me despite not understanding why I am upset; I am grateful to my internet friends for their comprehension, and for making me feel welcome anyway.

After the reflection comes the anticipation. A whole, shiny, bright, new year awaits just the other side of midnight. I wish to improve my health and fitness, both of which I have neglected over the past twelve months. I wish to manage my time better that I may see more of my friends, keep my house a little neater and still allow myself time to dream. I have books to read, stories to write and countryside to explore and appreciate.

Most of all though I wish to hug my husband more. He has not understood either my erratic moods or my desire to devote so much time to my writing, but has supported me anyway. My life can only be managed by me but, with him by my side, it is all so much more enjoyable.

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